Black Swimming Association explores representation in elite swimming through digital series

Karnell Nunes-Smith – Aspiring swimmer who is ranked #1 in his age group in the country.

As the Commonwealth Games starts, the Black Swimming Association (BSA) has released the first in a video series examining a lack of representation in the world of elite swimming.

Titled My Race, the series features interviews and digital videos with former, current and aspiring elite swimmers detailing their lived experiences over the last ten years, highlighting the challenges and stereotypes they faced as Black competitive swimmers.

Featured in the series are Rebecca Achieng Ajulu-Bushell, Team GB’s first black female swimmer, Kelsie Campbell, who will compete for Jamaica at the Games this week, and Karnell
Nunes-Smith, a promising young swimmer ranked number one in his age category in England.

Despite the Commonwealth Games being held in Birmingham – one of the youngest and most diverse cities in Europe – representation across the Home Nations is severely lacking with no Black swimmers competing for the English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish teams.

*According to new figures from Swim England, only 1.5% of competitive club swimmers across the country identify as Black (British, African, Caribbean, Mixed, Other). Such is the lack of representation at the highest level that when Nunes-Smith told people he was a swimmer, he was driven to needing to show them video evidence to be believed:

“When I tell people that I’m a swimmer, they’re shocked because we have that stereotype that black people don’t swim…I have to show them footage of me actually swimming for them to believe me.

“They think I’m a basketball player or an American football player.”

Nunes-Smith swims for Orion Swimming Club in Birmingham, a team that he says is unusually quite diverse. However, when he began qualifying for the most advanced national meets including the British Championships, the landscape of the sport changed.

“When I was younger, I’d look [up] into the stands and be confused because my parents were the only ethnic people in the stands.”

As well as representation, the swimmers also speak about how the sport’s governing body could be doing more to increase representation in the sport and help swimming shed its image as an “elitist” sport.

“Swimming is entirely an inaccessible sport,” said Kelsie Campbell. “I think that it’s an elitist sport and one of the main issues right now with tackling that problem is that people in higher places don’t want to admit that or don’t necessarily take the time to see that.”

Campbell, who was born in Nottingham, was previously part of the Team GB development squad before choosing to represent Jamaica, following an injury as a youngster, which left her feeling let down by the authorities.

“With [team] GB, there are so many athletes – if you fall off there’s certainly someone who’s there to replace you.”

Similarly, Rebecca Achieng Ajulu-Bushell was once the diamond of the youth swimming ranks. Despite being the first black woman to win British Championships and to swim for Team GB, she turned her back on swimming aged 17, citing a lack of support from the sport’s governing body.

“Swimming and elite sport, like all institutions, is the perfect arena for abuses of power.

“When I walked away from my competitive career I understood that I was always going to have to work twice as hard to get half as much.”

Prior to her time on the British senior team, Ajulu-Bushell represented Kenya, the nation of her father, where she experienced unprecedented success and won a plethora of international accolades.

“I had a lot of firsts in my swimming career…[but] I didn’t really feel celebrated and I didn’t celebrate myself.”

“In many cases, the nature of the Commonwealth Games allows many younger, aspiring athletes from the Home Nations to compete on the international stage,” said Seren Jones, co-founder of the BSA and ex-elite swimmer.

“The expectation is that you’d see some up-and-coming talent gaining experience in a world class environment.

“It’s a shame to see such a lack of diversity in the Home Nations swim teams this summer. But to counter this lack of representation, we want to celebrate the black swimmers who know what it’s like to advance through the British Swimming system and hopefully encourage children across the country to consider engaging in the world of aquatics.”

Individual videos with each of the swimmers will appear on the BSA social media channels throughout the week, taking a deeper dive into their own stories around representation, identity and the importance of water safety.

“Swimming is the only sport that can actually save your life,” said Ajulu-Bushell. “As a community, we don’t take water safety seriously enough because it’s not part of the cultural conversation.”

“As a lifesaving skill it’s vital,” said Campbell. “First we need to educate as to why they need that life skill because a lot of people think they don’t need it…[then] we need to provide them with that life skill.”

“I’ve been told that black people aren’t supposed to swim because our bones are quite dense, it makes us heavy and sink,” said Nunes-Smith. “But I like to prove that that’s not the case.
“Skin colour doesn’t mean anything…we can swim, we can do any sport.”

*Swim England has collated this data in 2022 for approximately 48,000 members. This can be broken down into 16500 ‘Club Train’ (Cat 1) and 31500 ‘Club Compete’ (Cat 2) members.
Club Train (Category 1)
1.8% – Black (British, African, Caribbean, Mixed, Other)
6.0% – Asian (British, Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Mixed, Other)
87.9% – White (British, Irish, Other)

Club Compete (Category 2)
1.5% – Black (British, African, Caribbean, Mixed, Other)
4.2% – Asian (British, Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Mixed, Other)
90.7% – White (British, Irish, Other)

Total (Cat 1 & Cat 2)
1.6% – Black (British, African, Caribbean, Mixed, Other)
4.9% – Asian (British, Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Mixed, Other)
89.7% – White (British, Irish, Other)

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